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     Volume 2 Issue 123 | June 14 , 2009|


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Teaching in North America

GRADUATE students in North America (Canada and the US) are an integral part of a university. Sometimes they are treated as staff as they are on payroll of the university. They share office space and part of other facilities that a regular faculty or staff get. Students who enroll in Masters or PhD programs are known as graduate students. Almost all the universities offer graduate programs in many disciplines. However, there are some universities that offer only undergraduate degrees, and no graduate degree is offered.

Unlike undergraduate studies, graduate programs are partially or fully funded. These funds come from two different sources-- (a) scholarships, and (b) assistantships. Scholarships mainly come from the department or the university, provincial or governmental sources, and professor's research grants. These scholarships are competitive and students have to apply for them. Sometime, when a student applies for admission, the department automatically forwards their applications for the open competition. Assistantships are offered in each semester, and are managed by the department.

Besides scholarships and graduate assistantships, graduate students in their PhD program can apply for part time teaching position. These positions are available for anyone, and are offered on a semester by semester basis. Students with good grades and previous teaching experience are good candidates for these positions, also known as sessional instructor positions. I had an opportunity to teach as a sessional instructor in two of such courses at the University of Windsor. This story is about my teaching experience.

The department of Mathematics and Statistics offers undergraduate courses in mathematics and statistics. In most of the North American universities, basic mathematics (such as algebra, calculus, differential equations) and statistics courses are required for most of the students enrolled in the faculties of science, engineering and biological sciences. Some departments require just a calculus course; some require more advanced courses such as linear algebra and differential equation. Students in engineering, science and biological sciences take elementary statistics courses.

In summer 2008, I taught a statistics course which was offered through distance education.

As the name suggests, there was no formal lecture classes and students from anywhere in the world could register. The entire course was offered over Internet and I had students from as far as Texas, USA.

Each week I posted reading guidelines from the textbook. Students were expected to read the material, do the assigned homework problems, and email me if they had any questions. I used to hold office hours for them, usually two to three hours-a-week in the evening. As it was a distance course, students were not allowed to see me face to face, but they could call me at the office telephone during my office hours.

Students in a distance course come from a variety of backgrounds. Most of them are regular university students, who prefer to take a distance course because it is convenient for them as they can work and study together. Others are from various organizations, including government organizations, taking the course as a requirement for their job. I had one student from Environment Canada (environment and weather related division of Canadian government).

Enrollment in a distance course varies greatly from semester to semester. I had about 70 students in my class. Although I gave them assignments, they were not collected or graded. However, there were midterms and quizzes and a final exam. To assist in marking quizzes and midterms, each instructor would get Teaching Assistants (TAs). Depending on the size of the class, number of TAs varies. Students would write the midterms in a testing facility nearby their location. It is conducted in a way similar to TOEFL or IELTS exams.The instructor would prepare the midterms (students would write answers in it) and the university would send them to the testing facility via postal mail.

Students would write the exams in the testing facility after the local administrator validates their identity. The testing facility would send the tests back to the university and I would collect from them.

After successfully teaching the distance course, I was given another opportunity to teach a regular lecture course in the following Fall 2008 semester (Sep - Dec). This time it was a first-year mathematics course offered for science students. Enrollment was pretty big, about 130 students. There were four sections of the course and three other faculties were teaching the other sections. It was a required course for most of the students, and about 20 students who could not register in time were on the waiting list. I had to manually enroll some of the students after discussing with those who needed the course most.

This was the first time I taught a lecture course in Canada. It was not easy for me to walk-in to such a huge class. I was a bit nervous, initially, but overcame it quickly. I taught at DU, so I had the temperament, but it was a different game especially when you are lecturing in a class filled with a hundred and thirty native students and your first language is not English. Living in Canada for over 4 years definitely gave me a good foundation in terms of communication. That helped me get started. Now I feel that it went really well. Good preparation about the lecture materials was the key to be successful.

As the enrolment was high, I was given two TAs to share the marking job done with ease. This is a good thing in North American education system that the instructors do not have to mark the quizzes and tests. They would concentrate on what is important-- the preparation for the lectures and delivering the best for the students. Instructors get many facilities. For example, the department would provide textbooks with instructors' solutions manual. Sometime they provide test banks and lecture slides as well. Instructors would hold office hours every week so that students could come and ask questions.

At the end of each semester, students get a chance to evaluate the teaching. It is usually done two weeks before the end of the lectures. Students fill out a preset questionnaire readable by the OCR. These evaluations are not available to the instructor until the final grades are posted. Usually it takes about 2-3 months to get the evaluations. Final evaluation score is mailed to the instructors along with their relative standing with other faculties (anonymously) in the same semester. These points count towards next appointment (for sessional instructors), and for promotions for the tenured faculties.

Teaching in North America is challenging. Sometime it is overwhelming too if you are a graduate student with your own research and other works. Nevertheless, it is an invaluable experience that you can count towards your career goal.

(Enayetur Raheem is a lecture of Applied Statistics at the Institute of Statistical Research and Training (ISRT), University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, currently on leave, pursuing PhD in Statistics at the University of Windsor, Windsor, ON, Canada.

URL: http://www.isrt.ac.bd/faculty/eraheem

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